The impetus for this online reading group was my realization this past year that most of my undergraduate students hadn’t read Homer’s Odyssey, although some of them said that they had read excerpts from it. The episode with the Cyclops (Book Nine) is without question the most frequently-anthologized section of The Odyssey, as it stands on its own pretty well and showcases Odysseus’s character — his cleverness (the scheme to blind the Cyclops and escape from the cave) as well as his arrogance (his continued taunting after they’ve barely escaped). Most undergraduates have probably read a version of Book Nine somewhere in their academic pasts.
The Cyclops episode kicks off Odysseus’s narrative in Books 9-12, which is something of a travelogue of miraculous, supernatural adventure – every book in this week’s reading focuses on episodes outside of mortal, human experience so that the settings and characters seem like an endless parade of wonders: the drugged-up Lotus Eaters; the one-eyed, monstrous Cyclops; Circe the powerful, sexy witch; the ghosts of the land of dead and Odysseus’s maneuverings to call them; the seductive and deadly Sirens; the sea monsters Scylla and Charybdis…… you may feel like you already know many of these archetypal figures, as they appear in a variety of retellings of the Greek myths, not just here in the epic.
In the midst of Odysseus’s flashback, Homer has a fabulous moment when the framed narrative breaks (Fagles XI.378, Wilson XI.335), when he reminds us that Odysseus is sitting in Alcinous’s hall and telling his story. Odysseus stops at what could be called a cliff-hanger; he has told us how he has spoken with Tiresias and some ghosts of women in the land of the dead, then states that “I cannot name each famous wife and daughter / I saw there; holy night would pass away / before I finished” (Wilson XI. 330-332). The voice of the poet/narrator returns to remind us that the Phaiacians are Odysseus’s ‘real’ audience: “They were silent, spellbound, / listening in the shadowy hall” (Wilson XI.335-336). Odysseus allows himself to be convinced to continue, with the promise of even more, and more elaborate, parting gifts when the Phaiacians take him home. The moment can come as something of an interrupting jolt, as Odysseus has “spellbound” us, the modern readers, as well as the Phaiacians — we have forgotten that he is safely in a palace, drinking wine and recounting his adventures.
A point which leads me to a warning about Odysseus and his famous flashback in Books 9-12: he is not an objective narrator. The poet/narrator isn’t objective either (can any narrative voice be objective? A philosophical question for another time, perhaps), but Odysseus is definitely telling the story the way he wants it told. It’s convenient that everyone else who journeyed with him from Troy is now dead – there is no one to contradict him, or correct a faltering memory, or to provide information about events that occurred when he was absent.
Just as an example, Odysseus relates his conversation in Hades with Agamemnon about the horrors inherent in women (on his homecoming from Troy, Agamemnon was murdered by his wife Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus). Agamemnon says that “there’s nothing more deadly, bestial than a woman / set on works like these — what a monstrous thing / ……the queen hell-bent on outrage” (Fagles XI. 484-490); Odysseus agrees with and expands upon this point, stating that “Zeus from the very start, the thunder king / has hated the race of Atreus with a vengeance — / his trustiest weapon women’s twisted wiles” (Fagles XI.494-496).
Odysseus and Agamemnon both fail to mention the extremely legitimate causes of Clytemnestra’s anger. Before the war, Agamemnon sacrificed their daughter Iphigenia to get the right wind to blow the fleet to Troy. After the war, Agamemnon brought home as captive war-prize and concubine the Trojan princess Cassandra, who had been a priestess of Apollo. So while maybe Clytemnestra wasn’t justified in murdering her husband, she certainly had reasonable grievances that Agamemnon and Odysseus don’t mention.
We have to trust Odysseus, but (and here again is Homer’s brilliance) we already know that Odysseus is wily, clever, manipulative. Be careful: He’s messing with us in the same way that he messed with the Trojans, with the Cyclops, and now with the Phaiacians. He’s very seductive and very good at getting what he wants. He will need all of these skills when he finally gets home; meanwhile, he has seduced us, his audience, and we are rooting for him, knowing that he will have to get back to Ithaca and deal with the upstart suitors, his adolescent son, and his grieving wife.